Merced County Times Newspaper
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UC Merced standouts explain reasons for new top ranking

‘Students are collaborating, their laboratories are collaborating, and it’s leading to an increase in citations and grant funding,’ says Betsy Dumont, dean of UC Merced’s School of Natural Sciences.
‘Students are collaborating, their laboratories are collaborating, and it’s leading to an increase in citations and grant funding,’ says Betsy Dumont, dean of UC Merced’s School of Natural Sciences.

UC Merced is now ranked No. 4 in the United States for universities 50 years old or under.

The Times Higher Education Young University Rankings this year included 351 universities, an increase from 250 in 2018.

The reviewers consider teaching, research, citations, international outlook, and industry income of qualifying universities when determining the rankings.

When the Times interviewed Betsy Dumont, dean of the School of Natural Sciences, to find out how the category, citations, played a part in the university’s ranking, she explained, “It refers to the citations of scientific literature that any faculty members have written, like publications in a scientific journal. If a scientist publishes in a scientific journal and another scientist in the same field points to their work, it shows how widely they’re being read by other scientists, and is a measure of the impact their work is having. The number of citations isn’t meaningful without the context. In a small field, several hundred citations is good. In a large field, several thousand citations is good.

“Along the lines of measuring scientific impact, besides citations, another criteria is grant awards.  The awarding of grants, especially at the federal level, is very competitive, and earning one is another sign of being up and coming in the world.

“UC Merced is up and coming in both of those areas.

“We’ve been growing quickly and are finally getting to the right number of people we need to really start working together, and you can find good collaborations among scientists and engineers on campus. Their students are collaborating, their laboratories are collaborating, and it’s leading to an increase in citations and grant funding, and that’s part of what gets us on that list.”

The Times asked Gregg Camfield, executive vice chancellor and provost of UC Merced, who oversees all teaching at the campus, in what ways research and teaching played a part in earning the excellent ranking.

He responded, “We’re including undergraduates in research at a much higher rate than most universities do.  Most use post-doctoral fellows for research support. We use those, but we also make extensive use of our undergraduates, and we also use freshmen instead of just juniors and seniors. We do it because most freshmen are first in their families to go to college, and they don’t understand what a research university is. By pulling them into research early, we open up a path for them, and 5 percent of our students go on to finish doctorates. I think that’s the core of what we do in teaching that’s extraordinary and pushes us up in the rankings.”

He continued, “The thing about doing research is instead of just memorizing facts, students understand why they’re dong the work they’re doing. They’re working with a professor to create new knowledge. For example, we have a professor, Jennifer Manilay, who studies the immune system and how the bone cells create immune cells that are targeted at particular diseases.  When she has one of her undergraduate students in her lab, they know they’re working on a project that makes a difference. These undergraduates learn better, they graduate at higher rates than we would expect given that many of them are first in their families to attend college and many of them are economically distressed. When you come from a background like that it’s easy to find reasons to quit, and this kind of research gives students reasons to finish.”

Camfield added, “A lot of our graduates stay here. One of my former students lives down the street from me and teaches at Merced High School. We’re proud to give back to the community, too.”

He explained, “The biggest part of the ranking is the research portfolio.  We’re very active in research. The Carnegie Foundation has a number of classifications for universities and colleges describing what they do.  One of the classifications is research-focused institutions, and the ratings are R1, which is the highest, R2, and R3. Our first ranking was R2, and that was the fastest any university has ever gotten there.

“Among the faculty members who do research and pull undergraduates into it which has boosted us in the rankings, we have Anna Song, a psychologist, who studies what makes teenagers engage in risky behavior.  She’s an expert in smoking initiation, progression, and cessation.

“Another is Josh Viers, an engineer who studies water and helps us understand and better use our precious water supply in California.

“Yangquan Chen is a professor who started the MESA Lab, which works on the remote sensing of drones that allows us to use water better in farm fields.

“Mario Sifuentez is a historian, and he studied migrant labor, but what he’s working on now is water.  He’s looking at the history of water policies and how they affected different communities over time and the West.

“So we have people looking at water from multiple perspectives.

“We have a bunch of professors in public health. One is Mariaelena Gonzalez, a key researcher for the newly formed UC Merced Nicotine and Cannabis Policy Center.”

Dr. Gonzalez’s research focuses on social epidemiology and social determinants of health, including tobacco, health disparities, Latino and refugee health and prevention behaviors.

Camfield is proud of the university’s outstanding achievement in the rankings.

Highlighting the overall quality of the university which is responsible for this honor, he concluded, “We have a wide range of people doing a wide range of stuff, and the work they’re doing is quite important. We’re here because we’re a state university, a public land grant university. We’re here to serve. We’re here to educate and do research that helps our community.”

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